Wednesday, September 30, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update One

September fifteenth, 2009.
Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story - *1/2

This evening I saw the movie “Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story” at the Varsity cinemas (9 PM) at the Toronto Film Festival. I will be honest, there were hundreds of films being screened at Toronto and the reason why this one landed up on my list was the title, which implied a sort of fantasy tale based on the famous Persian story of Sheherazade. I am not complaining, but this is not what the movie turned out to be about.

It is a film shot in Egypt about the plight of several different female characters. The lead actress is a talk show host and other characters are folded into the movie using the somewhat tired device of different female guests speaking up at the television talk show. As the movie progresses, each of them reveals her life story. Each woman has been in some form abused, oppressed or poorly treated. Guess who lands up talking about her plight at the talk show in the closing scenes of the movie. 

As a film, it seemed oddly stuck (in its tone, in its use of colors, in the basic flow structure of the stories) in the emotional sensibility of movies from a few decades ago, movies with a particular moral rigidity. It reminded me of the preachy, moralistic tales that were de rigeur in Indian cinema in the fifties and sixties. What is ironic is that this movie is actually lobbying for a more progressive way of thinking around women’s rights in Egypt. It is difficult for the film to demonstrate a progressive spirit when the movie reminded this viewer of retrieved footage from a film made at a time when women were literally kept under wraps. If you are creating a movie that is making the case for breaking traditional and oppressive rules, why choose to make it in a traditional and oppressive style? Would it not have been better if the filming, editing, the entire treatment of the material were handled in a modern style, with cleverness, with wit, with energy?  

Of course the intentions are noble. But for me there were two things that primarily prevented me from connecting with the movie. One was the general overwrought treatment of the subject matter. There was nothing of much subtlety here; what could have been handled by a simple look was often amplified with obvious dialog. And secondly, while I have nothing against overtly feminist subject matter, this one has every single one of the male characters be so utterly rotten, that the film loses objectivity and starts to seem like a diatribe.

Those complaints aside, what made every film watching experience at Toronto a treat was the Q and A session with the director at the end of most movie screenings. What a treat to watch a film and then be face to face with the director, the person who toiled untold months and years, working through the conception of the film through painful completion. And was there along every single shot of the film you have just seen. And to have this person describe the movie to you and answer audience questions in their own words. It is like using the microwave, and then after your food is warmed, to have the inventor of the microwave show up in your house to explain any questions you might have!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What I am listening to - September 2009

iTunes has a section called "What We're Listening To" which is useful. Made me want to create one of my own. Here is stuff that is getting most playtime on my iTouch of late -

  • Circle – Sugarland (Live on the Inside)
  • Dhan Te Nan – Sukhwinder Singh (‘Kaminey’ soundtrack)
  • Easy Silence – Dixie Chicks (Taking The Long Way Home)
  • Gasoline and Matches – Buddy and Julie Miller (Written in Chalk)
  • Hai Junoon – Pritam (‘New York’ soundtrack)
  • Hallowed – Sacha Sacket (Lovers and Leaders)
  • Love – Sugarland (Live on the Inside)
  • Orange Sky – Alexi Murdoch (Four Songs – EP)
  • Sex on Fire – Kings of Leon (Only by the night)
  • They Bring Me To You – Joshua Radin (Simple Times)
  • Yaara Seeli Seeli – Lata Mangeshkar (‘Lekin’ soundtrack)

What I have been watching - September 2009

iTunes has a section called "What We're Watching" which is useful. Which made me want to create one of my own.
On the big screen :
  • Kaminay (****)
  • Love Aaj Kal (***1/2)
  • The Hurt Locker (****)
  • District 9 (***)

On the not so large screen (courtesy of Netflix and the cable company):
  • Tell No One (***)
  • A Christmas Tale (***)
  • The Last Metro (***)
  • To Catch A Thief (***1/2)

On the not so large screen (courtesy of airplanes):
  • Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (**)
  • Pride and Prejudice (***1/2)
  • All About Eve (***)
  • Departures (***1/2)
  • My Life In Ruins (**1/2)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Best Films - First Half 2009

We have all been there. Sometimes you want to see a good movie and there appears to be nothing appealing playing in the cinemas or at the video/online store. I try to avoid pushing movies on to others, but occasionally I do get asked to suggest something. We are past the middle of the year for more than a month now and for an obsessive List Maker like myself, it was time to post something. So forthwith, here is my completely biased and totally unscientific list of the better movies of the First Half of 2009 (January through July).

  1. The Hurt Locker
    I doubt I will see a better movie before the year ends. It is futile to avoid using superlatives when talking about this one (I tried hard). So here it is, plain and simple: this is the best action movie in years. Likely the best movie of the year, period. The most visceral movie I have seen in a long time. There are a few scenes here so intense that it took all my resolve to keep from walking out of the cinema from the unbearable suspense. Watching it was like a slap to the face that all but left me wondering in amazement (and gratitude) that films still retain the power to do this to us. This is also the movie that belongs in that rarefied cadre of films that are about one thing but manage to be about everything else, reflecting the universe through the experience of a few. [In fact my one minor grouse has to do with the last few scenes when that warrior of a director, Kathryn Bigelow hones in on making a specific point and (intentionally perhaps) pulls the focus away from the multitude of things that the movie had so successfully managed to be about until that point]. If I could spend my time accosting strangers on the street and begging them to go see this movie (with a money-back guarantee), I would. When top advertising dollars are being spent on movies like ‘The Transformers’ even as required viewing such as ‘The Hurt Locker’ goes un-marketed, it makes me weep.

  2. (500) Days of Summer
    This one is a gem. This movie started out in limited release at the art-house cinemas a few months ago, and has slowly made its way to the multiplexes. For good reason. This is a smart, fresh, witty romantic comedy, one of the best in years. I saw it and melted hopelessly in submission to its cleverness. Ladies and Gentlemen, this, is how you do it. There is enough creativity and heart here for three movies. To roll your eyes at the prospect of seeing this perceived chick-flick (its art-house roots not withstanding) is to deprive yourself of one of the better movie-going experience of the year. Effortlessly funny, sincere, and consistently creative, it has connected with audiences (I think) because it is laser precise in its realistic depiction of the ebbs and flows of early love - and what follows afterwards. The two leads of the movie (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel), are so winning, that they are not, for a moment, anything less than fully believable. Gordon-Levitt has lines in the movie that would sound silly coming from a lesser actor, but he makes them heartbreaking. And Deschanel has a slippery role to inhabit, and it is to her credit that I cannot think of a single other actress who could have done it justice. Charting the step by step development of a relationship between two very specific characters, this movie walked first into my brain, and then, the heart.

  3. Up
    The folks at Pixar knock another one clear out of the park, and this one reaches higher in the skies that most of their previous efforts. I can imagine, early on, the movie-makers sitting in a meeting with their marketing group where the story for this movie got pitched. I can imagine them being told by the marketers that this time they had gone too far and the film would be virtually unsellable unless its story was modified significantly. To whoever who stuck their tongue out to the marketers and told them to back the hell off (and worse, I hope) I bow down with gratitude; you are my personal hero(es). In refusing to cater to children as the primary audience and choosing to infuse the movie with an underlying true sadness, the film hits paydirt. It figures out that elusive secret for what it takes to keep an animated movie firmly rooted in the mind of viewers a week, or even a month after seeing it, which almost never happens. Much has been written about the first ten minutes of the movie, about its near-perfection, about its incredible economy, about the sucker-punch of an emotional wallop it packs. But what amazed me was this: in a movie that breaks many rules, those first ten minutes break a big one: that a good movie takes its time to develop its characters and invests in them slowly and earnestly through the course of the movie so that it can earn its deserved emotional payback at the end. Instead here is a film that introduces its characters quickly, then with surgical precision layers a few scenes on top of each other that yield to a devastating meltdown in ten minutes flat. Just like that, rule broken. There have been many who have complained that the movie is too sad and not appropriate for children. To which I say, God forbid your child learns about reality and personal loss from an animated movie instead of being exposed to senseless violence in a hundred other films. Can I also just say that I love Kevin!

  4. The Hangover
    I started laughing at the beginning and just did not stop. I loved the basic premise of the movie – trying to reconstruct the events that transpired over a night of debauchery in Vegas that none of the participants seem to remember. I appreciated how for a raunchy, Hollywood comedy, it remained eminently unpredictable through most of its proceedings. I liked that every character maintained fidelity to him/herself and there were no sacrifices made to any character for a cheap laugh/gag. Who says that low brow cannot be high entertainment. The gutter is as good a place as any to find humor, and yes insight. As the movie progressed I kept waiting for that first misstep, that first cheap shot, and realized as I sat up with delight that this might actually never happen. I also am glad that within the confines of market-driven studio filmmaking these days, this movie dares to be raunchy as it wants, without apologies. We are told that nothing is harder in cinema than good comedy. If so, this movie may be the most underrated film of the year.

  5. Love Aaj Kal (‘Love These Days” or “Love Then and Now”)
    After the brilliance of ‘Jab We Met’ (“When We Met”), easily the best Indian movie last year, the expectations were impossibly high for the latest offering from the same director, Imtiaz Ali. But Love Aaj Kal manages to hold its own admirably through much of its running time. Nobody is going to call it a classic, but the film will easily earn its place on ‘Best Of’ movie lists. It gets so many things delightfully right, that the few things it does not get right (poor choice in some lead casting, a disappointing last half hour) are forgiven. [For an Indian movie this year that gets everything right, see ‘Kaminey’ released later this year, and therefore not on this list]. The paralleling stories of two sets of star-crossed lovers (one contemporary and another from an earlier time) forms the basis for the movie. For a film to work, it almost always comes down to the writing and this one could teach a lesson to lesser movies; the dialog crackles along like rain on livewire. What impressed me most about the movie ultimately was about what it chose not to do at various typical plot developments; it takes gumption to be subtle instead of heavy-handed, and to subvert expectations instead of conforming to them, all foreign concepts to Hindi cinema. But somehow ‘Love Aaj Kal’ prevails. And somebody please give the editor of this movie an award.

  6. Duplicity
    Duplicity is an endangered species in the jungles of Hollywood studios: an intelligent, funny, literate movie that is fueled by the high wattage of its lead actors. The kind that big studios used to make in their hey days with the likes of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Where the lead stars would light up the screen with a rat-a-tat volley of clever zingers, courtesy of impossibly well-written scripts (and of course with the well-acknowledged love of the camera for their faces). Nobody seems to write film dialog like that these days (to see how good a film script can get, see “The Philadelphia Story”). Any contemporary movie that bears comparison with these ideals is in good company. And ‘Duplicity’, recognizes that sometimes it is best to give two bonafide stars an original script and back the hell off. To watch Julia Roberts and Clive Owen dance around like spiders on the same web, unsure of who is spinning what part of the web, is to see world-class experts at work. Sure the movie has a convoluted, hopelessly unrealistic plot, too clever for its own good. But when was the last time you decided to invite a top chef to your home to cook you a great meal, instead of cooking something yourself; Duplicity is the equivalent of that experience. A rare entry into the list of movies that Hollywood got right this year.

  7. Star Trek
    If I had to give an award for best director from amongst the movies on this list, it would be a difficult task; but I think I would ultimately pick J.J. Abrams, who worked on this re-booting of the Star Trek franchise. Not to take away from the accomplishments of the other directors, but there are some jobs you just do not say ‘yes’ to, and taking on the reinvention of an exhausted, aged, irrelevant franchise would be one of them. In recent years the Star Trek movies had become laughing stock, the standard punchline to many an unoriginal joke. There are a hundred ways this movie could have gone horribly wrong, a hundred ways this would have been an embarrassment, the sort that induces howls at unintended times from the audience, a hundred ways this could have been a bombastic, loud, empty, clutter of special effects (umm…’The Transformers, anyone?). And yet, against all odds, this new Star Trek movie manages to be everything that you thought impossible: engaging, modern, relevant, exciting, emotionally weighty and unironic. Heck, this movie is just fun. Fun for the die-hard fanatic of the franchise, and fun for the ten year old who does not know his Klingon from his Vulcan. I would have never thought that I would be saying this, but I am now looking out for the sequel. And that is a testament to the rabbit that the makers of this film have pulled out of their hats.

Honorable Mention: Adventureland, Away We Go, Departures